“Between Two Kingdoms” by Suleika Jaouad

It has been a while since I have last read a memoir as good as “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” by Suleika Jaouad. I think it stood for me really close to “Educated” by Tara Westover – I swallowed this book within a few days: it was moving, engaging, simply yet beautifully written.

I picked up “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” by Suleika Jaouad because if was on the list of Heather’s top picks from Indigo Chapters. When I am looking for something good to read, I often scan through Heather’s list and find something that intrigues me – this time it was the memoire by Suleika Jaouad.

“Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted” is an autobiographical memoir by Suleika Jaouad – a young woman from the Tunisian and Swiss background in the United States who just finished university and is starting her adult life. Being fluent in French because of her Tunisian father, she managed to get a job in Paris as paralegal, moved there along with her new boyfriend Will and is starting her exciting adult life. Everything seems to be going great until one day Suleika has to be rushed back to the United States realizing that she has bone marrow cancer and start her yearlong treatments. Getting sick is already devastating but getting sick as a young adult who is just starting their life and who is supposed to be living their best life is crushing. After several months of intense chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant, the cancer returns again and Suleika spends another few years fighting with the disease until she is finally ready to rejoin the kingdom of the healthy – which turns out not to be as simple as it seems as she is still healing from years of emotional trauma and suffering. In attempt to recover herself from the disease, she sets on a road trip around the United States with her mutt Oscar to meet all the people who wrote her letter and send her support during her years of treatment.

The summary above is a pretty condense one but the book itself is so much deeper – it might seem from the description that it is yet another cancer survival story (which it partly is) but it deals with so many topics on very deep levels: topics of loss and death as Suleika is constantly losing her cancer friends; topics of love, support and bitterness as she observes how her diagnosis affects the lives of those she cares about; topics of bitterness and contentment as she sees people living their best life but yet she is constricted by her physical sickness.

One thing that I especially enjoyed about the book is that Jaouad is an excellent writer – well, it is not surprising as she was writing for years for the New York Times. Her writing is very flowy, simple and yet very powerful which reminded me of the clarify of Tara Westover’s writing. Anton Chekhov, one of the most celebrated Russian writers, said that “Brevity is a sister of talent”. I think that Jaouad follows that principle fairly well – her writing is concise, her words are selected thoughtfully and they make the powerful messages come through with a distinct flavour.

As always, here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

***

“Moving on. It’s a phrase I obsess over: what it means, what is doesn’t, how to do it for real. It seemed so easy at first, too easy, and it’s starting to dawn on me that moving on is a myth – a lie you sell yourself on when life had become unendurable. It’s the delusion that you can build barricade between yourself and your past – that you can ignore your pain, that you can bury your great love with a new relationship, that you are among the lucky few who get to skip over the hard work of grieving and healing and rebuilding – and that all this, when it catches up to you, won’t come for blood.”

***

Grief is a ghost that visits without warning. It comes in the night and rips you from your sleep. It fills your chest with shards of glass. It interrupts you mid-laugh when you’re at a party, chastising you that, just for a moment, you’ve forgotten. It haunts you until it becomes a part of you shadowing you breath for breath.”

***

When you are facing the possibility of imminent death, people treat you differently: Their gaze lingers, recording each mole, tracing the shape of your lips, noting the exact shade of your eyes, as if they are painting a portrait of you to hang in memory’s gallery. They take dozens of pictures and videos of you on their phones, trying to freeze-frame time, to bottle the sound of your laugh, to immortalize meaningful moments that can later be revisited in a memory cloud. All of this attention can feel like you are being memorialized while you are still alive”.

***

“As a patient, you are constantly asked to investigate the body, to report on yourself, and to narrate your findings: How are you feeling? What is your pain on a scale of one to ten? Any new symptoms? Do you feel ready to go home? I understood now why so many writers and artists, while in the thick of illness, became memoirists. It provided a sense of control, a way to reshape your circumstances on your own terms, in your own words. “That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is” Jeannette Winterson wrote. “It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place”

***

We call those who have lost their spouses “widows” and children who have lost their parents “orphans”, but there is no word in the English language to describe a parent who loses a child. Your children are supposed to outlive you by many decades, to confront the burden of mortality only by way of your dying. To witness your child’s death is a hell to heavy for the fabric of language. Words simply collapse.”

***

After I finished reading this book, I felt so much calmer and peaceful for weeks – I feel like this has been a dose of humanity and wholeheartedness that I have been searching for as the pandemic is slowly taking its toll on my. To finish off, here is one more beautiful quote for you:

Gazing up at the Milky Way, I remember when all I wanted is what I have in this moment. Sitting on the kitchen floor of my old apartment, sicker than I’d ever felt, my heart fractured into ten thousand tiny pieces, I needed to believe that there was a truer, more expansive and fulfilling version of my life out there. I had no interest in existing as a martyr, forever defined by the worst things that had happened to me. I needed to believe that when your life has become a cage, you can loosen the bars and reclaim your freedom. I told myself again and again, until I believe my own words: It is possible for me to alter the course of my becoming”.

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